Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: Visiting Congo Missionaries, 1964, Part Three

When a second USIS officer joined Fred Hunter at the American Cultural Center in Coquilhatville, Fred was able to travel. A missionary offered him a trip to the deep bush. He took it and got to know missionary doctor Gene Johnson.

After my visit to his surgery, Gene took me on a short jaunt to Bokote. I came to feel a real sense of respect and friendship for him. He told me about his work as a missionary doctor; he spoke without the self-importance that some doctors assume about themselves. Without the self-dramatizing of those missionaries who seemed always to mention that they were serving in a “benighted land,” in “the heart of darkness.” After six years in the Congo he felt he was reaching his maximum usefulness. He handled the doctoring without difficulty, he said. He knew enough of the local language and customs to work effectively with Congolese.

And he liked the people. We stopped at the hut of a Congolese because I said I’d like to see how villagers lived. He and the householder greeted one another affably. I peeked inside the hut. The host asked if I’d like to try my hand at shooting the arrows they used for hunting. I obliged and my awkwardness amused him. I also bought a rattle with bottle caps inside it.

At Bokote Gene introduced me to a Catholic priest, a docile old gray-beard who had been in the Congo almost forty years. He’d just wakened from his sieste, entered sleepily in a threadbare white soutane and reminded me of a teddy bear. He had a gentle, patient sense of humor, a kind of hands-thrown-up attitude toward the Congolese and their future. Catholic priests did not strike me as participating in the life process in the same way that the Protestants did with all their kids. The Congolese for whom procreation and children were such vital parts of life must have felt baffled by the priests.

I told Gene that he seemed perfectly cut out for the work he was doing. I wished I felt as much purpose in my work. He nodded. Then after a moment he said that his wife was lonely. Her life on the station did not give her sufficient social outlets. She worried about the children. So, Gene assumed, the next time they went home on leave, they probably would not return. That likelihood distressed him. He did not want to go back to a kind of doctoring where his professional conversations with colleagues centered on investments, on getting rich.

Dr. Gene Johnson tries a bow and arrow

Distressing, I thought. I wished Gene’s wife were more adaptable, because although I had expected back-country missionary life to be full of hardship, I did not find that to be the case. Yes, real limitations characterized that life, limitations of creature comforts and distractions, of intellectual stimulation. But the stations struck me as places of real interest, of great leisure and sometimes of incredible beauty. The life seemed often easy, certainly not taxing in the sense that the daily grind of city living could be. Nature could bring refreshment, much of it splendid. On the stations I swam in slow-moving rivers, read, played cards and other parlor games, took walks, went canoeing on the river and into nearby swamps, watched monkeys, chattering, playing, feeding in the tall trees just before dusk. For me, strangely, the Congo bush seemed to possess potential as a place of renewal for the world-weary.

What was Donanne doing at this time? In June she graduated from Principia College. She flew to Hong Kong where she met her parents and went with them to Pnom Penh, Cambodia, where her father was assigned as the American Embassy’s administrative chief. Before the end of the summer Donanne and her mother moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, while her father stayed in Cambodia to close the embassy.

Next post: A deep-bush woman and a missionary doctor’s tale.

This trip to Monieka and the people met there served as the backdrop of Fred’s story “Elizabeth Who Disappeared,” published in his collection AFRICA, AFRICA! About the book or the blog contact:


  1. Ralph Johnson

    May 4, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    I’m the son of Gene and Sue Johnson. When you visited Monieka, my brother Ron and sister Carol would have been eating tuna cassarole along with you.

    My parents are doing well, living in Galesburg Illinois. We all got evacuated from Congo in 1964, along with everybody else in Equator Province. My father sent letters to his friends from medical school looking for a job that could be either permanent or temporary, in case things settled down in Congo and they were able to go back. He ended up at the Galesburg Clinic. We went back for a third term (1967-1971). This time we lived in Boende. The mission organization decided to centralize all the doctors at a bigger city. There was a government hospital in Boende with no doctors. Instead of trying to fill all the little mission hospitals, the mission sent three doctors to Boende. The idea was to let the native nurses run the old mission hospitals as satellites of the hospital in Boende. This was a joint project of the mission agency, the government, and the Catholic church (which provided nurses for the hospital in Boende and for at least one of the other hospitals).

    My father came back to Congo with an airplane, the money for which had been raised by people in and around Galesburg. He’d fly the plane nearly every day to one of the old mission hospitals, sometimes picking up a patient who needed care that could only be provided in Boende, sometimes picking up a nurse who was going to come to Boende for some training. He’d often operate on people at the mission hospitals, and would talk to the nurses there about their other patients. The senior nurses were acting a lot like doctors, prescribing medicine and performing common operations like hernia repair. Meanwhile, my brother and I went to The American School of Kinshasa, traveling back to Boende for Christmas and summers.

    When we left Congo in 1971, the mission agency was the in the process of taking all its missionaries out of Congo. Missionaries had been there for something like 80 years, the church was thriving, and the mission agency thought that the missionaries were becoming an unneeded crutch to the church. We settled back in Galesburg, where we kids graduated from high school. My father continued to work at the Galesburg Clinic until he retired, over 15 years ago. He continued to keep strong ties with Congo. In retirement, he has served as a translator for the church head office in Indianapolis. He traveled back to Congo several times on behalf of the church. He keeps contacts with many people in Congo, and has sent many people to college there. As he says, he can send twenty people to college in Congo for what it would cost to send one here.

    I went back to Congo a few years ago at the request of my father, visiting Kinshasa and Mbandaka (the new names for Leopoldville and Coquilhatville). My father had donated money for a hospital building at Bolenge and wanted to send a family representative to the dedication. He felt he was too old to travel. So, I went with a delegation of people from the Disciples of Christ (his denomination). It was very good to be back. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it so much. The sights, the sounds, the smells, all reminded me of my very happy childhood. Several of the other delegates were jarred by the poverty, but it was pretty much the same as I remembered it. In many ways, things haven’t changed much. A lot of the infrastructure was worse. But Mbandaka has cell phones! I was impressed by how much better connected to the outside world people were. But overall, you couldn’t really say that life was a lot better for people in Mbandaka in 2012 than it was in 1971.

    It was interesting to read your comments about my parents. I bet that not many American men you met in Africa told you that they worried about their wives. His comments were a sign of his love and concern for my mother. He had the vision to be a medical missionary in Africa before he went to college. My mother told me once “Your father was called to be a missionary. I was called to be his wife.” Her family was bitterly opposed to their marriage because they didn’t want her to go to Africa. She was “all in” and he respected her and wanted to do his best for her. He didn’t learn romance from the movies, but my mother always knew he loved her.

    When my father decided to retire from medicine, my mother looked for a hobby they could share. She decided to take up bird-watching, because she knew he liked it and she thought she could get into it, too. They went all over the US and then all over the world. They only counted a bird if they could BOTH see it. Many of their trips consisted of a couple of weeks in a country, partly on a tour of some sort, and partly hiring a local birding expert and spending 4-5 days touring the country with him, finding hard-to-spot birds.

    My father learned French and a couple of African languages. He learned German so he could talk to some German nuns in their own language, though they spoke French. Later he learned Russian. When two of his children became professional programmers, he learned to program. At 86, he is the web-master and system administrator for his local church. He learned to fly. He did a lot of the maintenance on the Piper Cub that he had in Congo. Because he was the doctor with the airplane and spoke French at least as well as any of the other doctors, he was the official head of the hospital and would fly to Kinshasa to negotiate with the government. I have a picture of him installing a telephone system in Monieka between his house, the house of the head nurse, and the hospital, so that people at the hospital could get in touch with them without having to hop on a bicycle in the middle of the night. Most little kids think that their fathers can do anything. I kept on thinking that after I grew up.

    My mother had a fabulous soprano voice. She started singing on the local radio station in her tiny home town in Oregon when she was 12 or 13. She could have been a professional musician, but instead she went to the middle of Africa where she sang in church and sang with her children. Her voice isn’t what it used to be (and she is getting deaf) but she sang a solo at my daughters wedding last year and it was great. Most twenty-year old women would be proud to have a voice like hers is now. She said “you don’t want an old lady singing a solo at a wedding” but my daughter insisted.

    I remember clearly that she didn’t like her glasses. I started wearing glasses when I was 10 or 11, and I imagine she started early, too. When we came back to the US in 1971, contacts were starting to be popular, and she got them enthusiastically. She offered them to us (they were expensive at first), and my brother and sister both started wearing them, but I was happy with glasses. She wore contacts for a long time, 30-40 years, until they didn’t work well enough for her and she was old enough not to feel vain about them.

    My father told me that when he officially applied to the church mission board to be a missionary, they had him take some psychological tests. Then he was told that he didn’t really have the personality that went best with being a missionary, that he was more suited to being a math professor. However, since he was clearly so dedicated to being a missionary, they had decided to accept him. They must have seen some of what you saw.

    Here is what my daughter, the one who spent a few years in Taiwan and a year in China, who gets in cages with tigers, has ridden an elephant, and has jumped off a cliff in a hang-glider, said in response to what you wrote: “If they really were such shy, quiet, unassuming folk, it’s pretty incredible to think of all the things they have done and accomplished in their lives.”

    Thanks a lot for sharing! I know you were only there for a short while, and so you just gave us a glimpse in passing. But even those glimpses are valuable. And I hope that you appreciate knowing “the rest of the story”, as Paul Harvey used to say.

  2. Hi, Ralph,
    Quite extraordinary to hear from you. Thanks so much for writing. I hope you get this. I’m never sure that this form of communication works very well.
    My email address is: Please email to let me know if you get this.
    I’m still doing the blog: I will use your note to me as the next blog post. It will gp up Thursday 5/7/15.
    Please say hello to your parents for me. I often wonder if my scribblings reach the people who served as the subjects. I’ve used the story of watching your Dad do an operation and my reaction in several books. My recollection is that I wrote of my admiration for him after he took me on an afternoon jaunt when he talked about the possibility of having to leave after that tour which ended by evacuation in 1964. Please check out the blog website. Actually it’s possible to check out people by phone numbers and I think I knew that a Gene Johnson was in Galesburg. Do give your parents by best regards!

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